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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 3.31.11

Fighting for Crumbs

Time to take our place at the table

by Steve McQuiddy

One of my earliest jobs was as a busboy at a fancy restaurant along the Susquehanna River in southeast Pennsylvania. The building was a Revolution-era tavern, partly made out of giant river stones, and rumor said that George Washington really had slept there ã or at least he had stopped somewhere nearby.

Wealthy people came to dine there; we served them lavish meals and cleaned up what they left behind.

The dining room was intimate, with about twenty tables and a huge stone fireplace at one end. Menu items were written in French on one side. On weekends a trio played Baroque music, dressed in period costumes right down to the powdered wigs.

We worked in teams. Two waiters in tuxedos and one busboy in a white dinner jacket served five or six tables set up in candlelight, linen tablecloths, hand-made metal serving plates, half a dozen forks and spoons, and three or four goblets for drinks.

We filled wine glasses without picking them up, we noiselessly set their dinner courses down from the left and removed their finished meals from the right, we lit their cigarettes with a silver lighter, we opened champagne bottles without spilling a drop.

When someone ordered baked Alaska for dessert, the entire dining room watched as the lead waiter rolled out the gas-powered hot plates and poured flaming liqueurs into the pan. The sizzle and fire always brought better tips.

Even with the best tips, we could never afford to eat there. Back in the kitchen after wed cleared the tables, we were not averse to picking morsels from the wealthy diners plates before scooping the bones and bits of rice and coagulated sauces into the trash.

Sometimes at the end of the night the chefs would put out a plate of leftover pheasant legs or a piece of trout that had too many bones to serve the diners. We didnt mind that it was cold.

Sometimes we shared our crumbs with others; sometimes we ate them ourselves. No one begrudged the system because we all worked hard for our crumbs. You might call it a kind of cooperative scavenging.

The system worked because each night we divided our tips, and each Friday we cashed our modest paychecks. It wasnt a lot, but it was something. And for most of us, there was the belief that with time, energy, and perhaps a little luck, there might be something more.

We could easily have turned on each other, though, if the system were reversed ã if we served and cleaned up after the wealthy diners, then handed them our paychecks and tips as they left. Then, we would have only the leftover scraps and cold pheasant legs. And the fights would begin.

This of course is absurd; no one would submit to such treatment. And surely no one would attempt to force it on others. Yet this is exactly what has been happening to the American worker for more than a generation.

Over the last three decades, we have been serving and cleaning tables for "people” called corporations and the people who benefit from them. As their profits and bonuses have soared, our wages have stagnated. As their tax percentage has dropped, ours has remained roughly the same. As the laws have been changed to reduce their responsibility to workers, other laws have made it harder for the workers to make it alone.

For 30 years we have been serving the wealthy diners ever-more fancy meals and steadily handing them more and more of our paychecks and tips as they leave the dining room.

When they recently took the economy to the brink of collapse, we served them the largest feast of all, some $300 billion on a menu called the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, signed into law in October 2008 by President George W. Bush. Then we paid their bill.

Now the diners tell us some waiters and busboys are getting a few more cold pheasant legs than others. They say this is not fair, that we should pass laws to make sure no busboy gets more bony trout than any other.

They are telling us that we should fight each other for the crumbs.

We must stop fighting for crumbs. Instead, we should take a good, hard look at that table we have been serving and clearing all these years. We should require those who dine at our tables to pay for their meals. And we should then reclaim our rightful seat at the table, a seat we have left unoccupied for far too long.

Steve McQuiddy has worked in the private sector, public sector and as his own boss. He teaches writing at Lane Community College.